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From Deadspin to picket lines at GM and in Chicago, a moral workplace is 2020’s stealth issue | Will Bunch

American workers have long feared speaking out on the job risks everything. Could a progressive victory in 2020's election change that?

Chicago Teachers Union members march near the Lincoln Yards development on Oct. 29 during an 11-day strike.
Chicago Teachers Union members march near the Lincoln Yards development on Oct. 29 during an 11-day strike.Read moreJose M. Osorio / AP

As veteran Philadelphia journalist Dan McQuade — best known for turning a night out at a comedy show into the beginning of the end of Bill Cosby — watched his colleagues at the leading sports website Deadspin quit their jobs one by one, in an escalating ethical dispute with its new hedge-fund overlords, the question wasn’t so much when he would join them.

No, the question for the 36-year-old McQuade was whether he could marry his fiancee of nearly two years before the end of November — so he could join her health insurance plan before his own coverage expired.

“It’s one of the very strange things about tying your health insurance to your job,” said McQuade, who already has post-Deadspin assignments to write freelance articles but — with his rush wedding plans now on track — is also relieved he won’t have a gap in coverage. “A paycheck is one thing, but think how many people stay in a job so their child has health care.”

» READ MORE: Deadspin is no longer Deadspin after more writers walk out over ‘stick to sports’ edict

The threat of losing everything by taking a moral stand at work is hardly unique to Deadspin, though. It loomed large over this autumn’s nationwide GM strike — the longest auto-industry job action in 50 years, involving 48,000 workers. Not only did the strikers lose an estimated $1 billion in pay in seeking a long-term raise and a stronger GM commitment to investing in U.S. factories and keeping them open, but they had to deal with the intimidation factor of the giant carmaker pulling the plug without warning on their health insurance, triggering days of chaos.

“We’ve had a couple members who’ve been sick — they couldn’t get treated,” Al Tiller, shop chairman of UAW Local 1005 in Parma, Ohio, told Mike Elk of the Payday Report. GM insisted that the COBRA insurance program for laid-off workers would cover them, but no one told the strikers or their doctors’ offices. “We’ve got a member with a kid who has cancer, went to get his treatment, and couldn’t get it.”

For decades, U.S. workers have stared into the abyss of what could go wrong by standing up for what they think is right — a grand canyon that could mean not just losing a paycheck but losing the ability to see a doctor or to someday pay for their kids’ college education — and then usually turned back away from the abyss. That’s why the showdown at Deadspin, the strikes at GM. Mack Truck or by Chicago teachers, and even a renaissance of whistle-blowers in Washington, all feel in some way part of a dramatic sea change in how work gets done in this country.

The American worker is done putting up with your baloney.

And as the spirit of rebellion spreads from the picket line to the cubicle farm, it’s also becoming a below-the-radar issue on the 2020 campaign for control of the White House and Congress. It reflects the growing awareness that the need to cling to employer-provided health insurance and pay for an overpriced university education — either for your kids, or the weight of your own college debt — isn’t just tough economics. It’s a form of social control.

“Medicare for All means freedom, including freedom to strike,” Sen. Bernie Sanders, one of the Democrats’ top-tier 2020 White House hopefuls, tweeted in response to the GM walkout. Indeed, the looming election is in many ways a challenge to the economic regime of a modern workplace where labor has been weakened and bosses hold most of the cards.

Several leading Democrats, including Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, support Medicare for All, the ambitious idea for universal health care that would no longer depend on whether you have a job or where you work. Proposals both for free and more affordable public universities as well as cancellation of student debt would also affect career decisions that increasingly hinge on the ability to pay a small fortune for college.

Another Democrat, businessman Andrew Yang, has risen out of nowhere with his pitch for a universal basic income (UBI) of $1,000 a month for every adult, which he says would give Americans the power to pursue a career in the arts, to focus on caring for children or aging parents, or even escape an abusive relationship.

Back in April, I attended a Yang rally in Washington, D.C., where a young supporter named Rachel Spellman told the gathering that $1,000 a month from the government — which Yang proposes to raise from a value-added tax falling heavily on tech giants — would help her survive a life of freelance and gig jobs and a lack of support from parents who disowned her for being gay. “Andrew Yang,” Spellman said, "is the only presidential candidate right now who would offer protection in scenarios like mine.”

Increasingly, there is talk of the “dignity of work” from political candidates or from leaders on the so-called religious left. “To be deprived of work, to be unable to provide for one’s family and oneself, is to become not only economically vulnerable, but also humanly stunted,” the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of the Chicago Theological Seminary wrote in an essay a few years back. But the pressures of the gig economy, or working two or three jobs to pay for soaring urban rents or college debt, is relentless. “These kinds of jobs do not honor human dignity; they erode a sense of self-worth and contribute to a sense of helplessness and despair.”

The causes of despair have been well documented. Decades of decline in labor unions, which eroded their ability to fight for workers’ rights. The end of good-paying factory jobs and their replacement with a low-wage service economy. The political clout of billionaires, pitted against a shrinking middle class. The result was that employees who wanted to quit a job — whether over ethics, or harassment, or just personal unhappiness — often felt they couldn’t.

One problem has been what economists call “job lock," in which the uniquely American system of health insurance has forced millions of workers to stay put, even when unhappy. One study found that 25-to-55-year-old married men lacking other insurance options are 22.5 percent less likely to switch jobs than those who can obtain insurance. The insurance problem also prevents some from retiring early, while forcing others with illnesses to keep working.

Maybe it’s a case of freedom being another word for nothing left to lose, but the story of the late 2010s has been one of workers finally fighting back. Showing courage in leading the way, Chicago’s school teachers walked off the job in 2012 and again for a record 11 days this fall, fighting not just for better pay and benefit for themselves but also for better conditions in their schools, to bring back school nurses and librarians. Their movement inspired statewide teacher walkouts from West Virginia to Oklahoma that often weren’t legal yet seen as a moral imperative.

» READ MORE: L.A. teacher strike may be cutting edge of a revolution against what’s rotten in America | Will Bunch

The recent Chicago job action also slapped an exclamation point on 2019 as this century’s “year of the strike,” with a whopping 500,000 American workers — about 20 times as many as just two years ago — walking off their jobs at various times. The wave has increasingly spread to private employers like GM and Mack Truck; many have noted that record low unemployment has helped rank-and-file workers press their point that wages have not kept up.

Yet what happened in Deadspin was a stark reminder that there’s more at play here than just dollars. The pioneering website — launched at the height of the blogging boom in 2005 — created a lot of groundbreaking journalism, often about sports but sometimes not. The implosion of its parent Gawker Media (another long story for another day) orphaned Deadspin and some sister sites, which by April of this year were under the sway of a hedge fund called Great Hill Partners.

Workers at Deadspin had voted to unionize four years ago — but that was little protection from the soul-crushing edicts of corporate owners who littered posts with loud autoplay ads and objected to any stories critical of management, which led to the somewhat irrational edict that writers had to “stick to sports,” even though non-sports posts had often been hugely popular.

Rather than meekly comply, the journalists rebelled — reposting a series of non-sports articles and running an iconic headline over President Trump’s booing at the World Series, “Nationals Fans Didn’t Stick To Sports.” A popular longtime editor (and Temple alum) Barry Petchesky was canned, and then one by one every single staffer resigned — lousy job market for journalists and possible loss of health insurance be damned.

“The best thing about working at Deadspin was that I had a tremendous amount of editorial freedom.” McQuade told me of his time there. “Not only did they want to take that freedom away, but there weren’t real clear guidelines on what I should be doing." He pointed to a piece in Mother Jones where writer Daniel King noted astutely that “what the ‘stick to’ mandates are all about [is] not journalism, not even profits, but control for its own sake.”

Of course, one could argue that Deadspin writers are a warm-up act for our greatest on-the-job ethical conflict of all — which is why haven’t more high-level government workers spoken up or blown the whistle on corruption within the Trump administration. That one still unknown White House worker finally did risk so much to blow the whistle on Trump’s Ukraine machinations is also one more crack in the vast machine.

But at the end of the day, despite the remarkable courage of many individuals, America won’t have a more moral workplace without a more moral system — one that doesn’t depend on the whiplash of self-interested corporate paymasters also determining who gets to send his kid to college or who gets a kidney transplant. The good news that — for the first time any of us can remember — the dignity of work is on the ballot in 2020.